Are you a fan of ha­rees, the meaty wheat por­ridge and if­tar sta­ple?

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Ha­rees, haleem or khichda: What­ever be its name, this wheat­meat por­ridge, our colum­nist/foodie Arva Ahmed says, is of­ten best made in public kitchens.

Ha­rees is not ev­ery­one’s bowl of por­ridge. It is un­doubt­edly one of the most an­cient and pop­u­lar if­tar dishes across the Gulf coun­tries dur­ing Ra­madan – but its gluey, fatty con­sis­tency cou­pled with min­i­mal spic­ing can of­ten pose a chal­lenge to the unini­ti­ated.

The word ‘ha­rees’ comes from the Ara­bic ‘ha­rasa’ or even older, the Akka­dian ‘ha­rasu’, which refers to the mash­ing of meat with bar­ley or shelled whole grains of wheat. The bone-in meat is of­ten first cooked sep­a­rately be­fore com­bin­ing with the starch, deboned and then rhyth­mi­cally pounded into a smooth paste. Food pro­ces­sors have added their own con­ve­nient spin to this oth­er­wise la­bo­ri­ous bi­cep-build­ing dish.

If you thumbed through one of the ear­li­est cook­books dis­cov­ered, the 10th-cen­tury Kitabh Al Tabikh (Book of Dishes) by Ibn Sayaar Al War­raq, you would find nu­mer­ous vari­a­tions of the por­ridge: rice and meat, shred­ded chicken and bread, tripe and stale bread, or roasted and shred­ded chicken breasts and rice slow-cooked over a bra­zier. With the pro­tein and car­bo­hy­drate com­po­nents pinned down for this al­len­com­pass­ing meal, the recipes called for en­rich­ing the por­ridge with but­ter, clar­i­fied but­ter, fat ren­dered from ducks, chick­ens or the tails of fat-tailed sheep, sesame oil, or in some recipes, all of the above. Ha­rees can pro­vide a fully bal­anced, calorific and com­mu­nal meal that re­plen­ishes your fam­ily’s re­serves af­ter a day of fast­ing.

But his­tory and nu­tri­tional con­tent aside, I have al­ways found my­self nudg­ing ha­rees novices extra hard to give a dol­lop of the slimy paste a fair taste. One of my Bri­tish guests once rec­on­ciled the flavour of ha­rees at Al Tawa­sol restau­rant in Deira to that of bread stuff­ing pre­pared for a festive tur­key din­ner. While the me­dieval Arabs might have raised an eye­brow, the com­par­i­son in­spired other re­luc­tant din­ers around the tra­di­tional ma­jlis to give the por­ridge a well-de­served sec­ond chance. Since then, I have al­ways used that com­par­i­son to get ha­rees’s gluti­nous foot through the door.

For those with no ac­cess to home-made ha­rees, some of the best ver­sions avail­able com­mer­cially are cooked in bulk at ‘public kitchens’ across the coun­try. These kitchens are usu­ally take­out-only op­er­a­tions that serve dishes like ha­rees, biryani and mar­gouga that are typ­i­cally en­joyed in Emi­rati house­holds. My mother and grand­fa­ther pol­ished off the mild ver­sion we brought home from the Tuar Public Kitchen in Satwa, though it took a gen­er­ous dous­ing of hot and sour sauce be­fore I was mo­ti­vated to wipe my bowl clean. This di­lu­tion of the dish may seem like sac­ri­lege to ha­rees purists, but I take so­lace in the fact that the ear­li­est recipes of ha­rees call for a fi­nal flour­ish of ‘murri’, the salty, sour fer­mented sauce of me­dieval Bagh­dad.

The lit­mus test for a good home­made or com­mer­cially pre­pared ha­rees is that it should pos­sess ten­der threads of meat or chicken run­ning through the por­ridge, else the cook may have scrimped on the pro­tein and used a higher pro­por­tion of cheaper wheat in­stead. My fa­ther-in-law brings home a chicken ha­rees from the Shan Public Kitchen in Al Ghafia in Shar­jah that passes the lit­mus test with ease. Once home, he whips out his se­cret blend of spices and sim­mers the pale creamy paste into a rich, red­dish­brown pot­tage. Ev­ery drop of his mod­i­fied ver­sion is greed­ily lapped up by the fam­ily – no hot sauce needed.

Most Mus­lim cul­tures pre­pare some ver­sion of ha­rees, es­pe­cially since many be­lieve that Prophet Mo­ham­mad (PBUH) favoured this dish. The Ira­ni­ans pre­pare their own ver­sion of ha­rees, or ‘haleem,’ topped with cin­na­mon, su­gar and melted but­ter for a sweet-savoury por­ridge that I once sam­pled at the erst­while Ab­shar restau­rant on Mak­toum Road.

If you were to travel to Hy­der­abad, In­dia, now, in the midst of Ra­madan, you would be courted by count­less signs for their ver­sion of haleem. In com­par­i­son to the sub­tle, clas­sic flavour of the tra­di­tional Ara­bian ha­rees, haleem throws it­self on to cen­tre stage like a heavy metal band on fire. Purists would ar­gue that this haleem is re­ally ‘kichda’, a meatwheat por­ridge that is en­riched with pulses. But call it kichda or haleem, the restau­rant ver­sions dis­play such spice lib­er­al­ism as to cause all your fa­cial faucets to burst into a spon­ta­neous stream of sweat and tears.

Per­son­ally, I find the tra­di­tional bowl of ha­rees a notch too bland; Hy­der­abadi haleem

For those with no ac­cess to HOME-MADE ha­rees, some of the best ver­sions avail­able are cooked in bulk at ‘public kitchens’ – TAKE­OUT op­er­a­tions serv­ing dishes typ­i­cally en­joyed in Emi­rati house­holds

of­ten leaves my taste buds in a pile of smoul­der­ing ashes. My pick­i­ness arises from our fam­ily’s haleem. My mother’s recipe stays true to the nour­ish­ing na­ture of the tra­di­tional por­ridge, yet with the fist­fuls of lentils and spices to com­ple­ment rather than over­power the base meat and wheat flavour. Tra­di­tion calls for crack­ing a raw egg over the haleem right be­fore serv­ing; Mum then splashes it with bub­bling hot clar­i­fied but­ter so that the whites curl up into ten­der frills around the ten­der, quiv­er­ing yolk. Served with crispy fried onions, grated raw gin­ger and a spritz of lime, mum’s bowl of por­ridge is just right.

Crispy fried onions, grated raw gin­ger and a spritz of lime fin­ish off this home-made bowl of haleem, a ver­sion of ha­rees fea­tur­ing lentils

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